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Horrible Dreams: Frankenstein’s Nightmarish Dueling

The question of how to interpret dreams within a novel is one of the most contentious in all of literary criticism. The natural tendency may be to analyze them as though they were real dreams, which includes the implicit assumption that authors are capable of writing the same kind of dreams that our minds produce physiologically. Of course, the popular Freudian mode of interpretation owes much to the act of reading, imbued as it is with notions of symbolism and representation. Thus we are left with little solid ground to stand on, confident only in our impression that literary dreams must mean something, since they have been purposefully devised by conscious authors. The most famous scene in Frankenstein, in which Victor flees from his newborn creature into his bed, ends with a particularly mysterious dream sequence that features his beloved Elizabeth transforming into the rotting corpse of his mother. Seemingly concocted with an eye towards the graphical morphing technology of modern computers, the scene has acquired much of its current intrigue from the Freudian revolution in the early 20th century.

Yet Dr. Jonathan Glance rejects psychoanalysis as a useful tool for the interpretation of dreams in a pre-Freudian text, choosing instead to examine that era’s predominant conception of dreams for clues as to their true purpose in Frankenstein . Unfortunately, while Freud’s explanation applies to both real and literary dreams, Dr. Glance claims that the Victorian associationist paradigm—which locates the root of dreams in the day’s activities and the state of one’s body upon falling asleep—does not account for the purposeful manipulation of a character’s thoughts within a narrative. Instead, he asserts that 19th-century authors used dreams to foreshadow future plot twists, offering a warning generally unheeded by the protagonist.

While it does account for the sleeping Victor’s hallucinations after animating the creature, since that act of creation will eventually lead to Elizabeth following her mother-in-law to the grave, Dr. Glance himself admits that such a reading “may seem reductive.” He nonetheless goes on to defend his view, but a thorough critic must not be satisfied with this over-simplification. Indeed, we must explore the possibility, the certainty, that Shelley has more than one reason for the grotesque scene Victor imagines in his sleep. Frankenstein’s date of publication should not dissuade us from a psychoanalytic interpretation of its events; after all, in Freud uses E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” (1817) as the prime example of an uncanny text, even though Hoffman died 55 years before the word ‘psychoanalysis’ entered the lexicon. Perhaps unable to articulate their reasoning, 19th-century writers could still associate a character’s thought with his psyche.

To deflate Dr. Glance’s argument, we need only turn the page of Shelley’s text and glimpse undeniable evidence that she imbues dreams with more than simple premonitions. After abandoning Geneva in pursuit of his creature, Victor endures his lonely travels only through escapist dreams: “in sleep I saw my friends, my wife, and my beloved country; again I saw the benevolent countenance of my father, heard the silver tones of my Elizabeth’s voice, and beheld Clerval enjoying health and youth” (213). Clearly, these images do not refer to anything in the future of the novel. (We could posit that they reveal Victor’s heavenly existence to come, where he would be reunited with his loved ones, but an honest critic should not assume events that are not included in the text itself.) The very presence of these non-prophetic dreams casts doubt on Dr. Glance’s one-dimensional interpretation of the first sequence, demanding a more nuanced reading. Indeed, though a pre-Freudian author may not create dreams that fit perfectly into a psychoanalytic approach, Shelley is perfectly capable of constructing a symbolic link between dream scenes and the broader trajectory of the novel.

Both dreams portray deceased loved ones of Victor, yet while the later dream focuses on the earlier existences of the elder Frankenstein, Elizabeth, and Clerval, the first one depicts Victor’s mother in her current corpse-state. In a way, we might say that this movement away from the physical reality of death reflects Victor’s growing detachment from his former endeavors. Rather than imagine his departed kin as actual dead bodies, like the raw material for a scientific experiment gone awry, he uses them instead as objects of nostalgia to distract himself from the hideous creature.

Despite this apparent divergence, however, both dreams indicate the same characteristic: Victor’s inability to cope with reality. Upon his first sight of the creature, Victor feels no pride but only abject horror, and he willfully submits to his weariness, “endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness” (49). Though the resulting dream scene seems repulsive, it represents Victor’s attempt to reaffirm the supremacy of death, replacing the animated tissue in his laboratory with the still lifeless mother of his memory. The link between youthful Elizabeth and Caroline Beaufort’s corpse reinforces the inevitability of human decay, a process that Frankenstein has heretofore striven to reverse only to find an alternate misery. He immediately awakens to avoid the original predicament, yet he must confront his creature once again; thus Victor finds himself at an impasse, faced with the opposite yet equally intolerable options of ultimate death and abject reanimation. Incapable of bearing these two possibilities, Victor can only flee in horror and “take refuge in the courtyard…where I remained during the rest of the night” (49). It is telling that, in the aftermath of his miserable creation, Victor spends hours in an intermediate space locates both inside and outside the limits of the house. Indeed, this setting mirrors his current psychological state, trapped between two unbearable perceptions of the world: the mental image of man’s inescapable mortality and the external reality of a vile living cadaver.

Similarly, Victor admits that his later dreams serve to counteract the loneliness of his isolated pursuit:My life, as it passed thus, was indeed hateful to me, and it was during sleep alone that I could taste joy. O blessed sleep! Often, when most miserable, I sank to repose, and my dreams lulled me even to rapture. The spirits that guarded me had provided these moments, or rather hours, of happiness that I might retain strength to fulfil my pilgrimage. Deprived of this respite, I should have sunk under my hardships. (213)Cleverly, Victor has found a new way to avoid thoughts of both mortality and reanimation, imagining instead those he knows to be dead in their prior states. Sleep thus becomes a true reprieve, rather than a secondary source of horror. Still, this does not represent a fundamental variation in his character, but merely the next step in his rejection of the harsh reality he sees around him. Having achieved only isolation both in the natural order and through his scientific subversion of it, he withdraws as much as possible from his external life into the sanctuary of his own reminiscences, even going so far as to “persuade [him]self that they still lived” (213). This language of self-deception calls to mind the words Victor uses earlier to describe his initial disbelief at his mother’s death: “It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she whom we saw every day and whose very existence appeared a part of our own can have departed forever” (33, emphasis added). Undeniably, much like the youthful Frankenstein must try to convince himself that his established reality is no more—and, subsequently, that death cannot actually be vanquished—so too must the world-weary version imagine that his friends still live, that he has not engendered a murderer. Hence these dreams leave Victor unmotivated in his vengeance, since they allow him to forget its cause—yet just as Victor the rueful creator must wake up to the awareness of his creature’s countenance, he now cannot forget his pursuit for more than a single night’s sleep.

This is not to say that the two dreams play an identical role in Frankenstein, that our reading would not benefit from an analysis of the important distinctions between them. Rather, we must pay particular attention to the key points of deviation—specifically, the inclusion of two characters in the first dream that are ignored in the second: Victor’s mother and Victor himself.

In the initial nightmare, Victor plays an active role:Delighted and surprised, I embraced [Elizabeth], but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. (49)By the dream at the end of the novel, however, he has become a mere observer, using only the verbs “saw,” “heard,” and “beheld”; his one mention of “enjoy[ing] reality in their arms” is simply a figurative depiction of their presence in his mind (213). Victor’s dwindling subjectivity in his dreams indicates not only that he is consistent in his refusal to accept reality, as I have argued, but that his detachment from the world around him actually grows as the creature effects more and more devastation in his life.

Though he is horrified by the initial sight of his creation, he has not yet recognized the full implication of his experiment. Thus his dream maintains some basis in a reality that once was, in the previous inflexibility of death. The dream-Victor seems to produce the corpse through his actions, suggesting that the wakeful Victor still feels that he has the capacity to undo what he has done, to rip up his notes and restoring the prior laws of human experience. Unfortunately, Shelley provides clear evidence that, even now, such a regression would revolt Victor as much as the spectacle of a reanimated cadaver: “I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed” (49). In this way, Victor’s narrative moves from a grotesque vision of his mother’s corpse to a similarly ugly description of his own body, and then on to the image of the creature’s disgusting face, linking his obsession with defeating death to his constant awareness of his own physical state. While he makes grand pronouncements of his ambition to save all humanity from mortality, pointing to his mother’s death as his first recognition of mankind’s predicament, he also unwittingly offers us these shrouded hints as to the true root of his endeavors. In effect, Shelley thus uses the dream sequence to give us the opportunity for interpretation outside of the lens of Victor’s own explanations.

His desire to avoid reality, then, can be read as an unwillingness to face both his own mortality and the horrible form he would take if he were to transcend it. The juxtaposition of the dead mother and the undead creature, specifically the revulsion associated with both, leads Victor to withdraw from the world—first through a psychosomatic sickness, later through escapist dreams in which he does not play an active role. I would argue that Victor’s role as a spectator in those dreams reveals his subconscious awareness of their impossibility. Though he may well be able to perform the act of his nightmare and reinstate man’s unconquerable mortality, he surely cannot reverse the flow of time itself and bring the dead back to their youthful states. The ambitious scientist has come to appreciate his fundamental inability to realize his ultimate goal—which is not simply to animate lifeless tissue, but to restore the specific living identity of the deceased2E As such, he pulls away from the world through dreaming, and from his dreams through inaction; indeed, at those moments when he exists neither in external reality nor in his internal imagination, he has succeeded in escaping his own burden of disappointment, culpability, and solitude.

Yet if his goal in these later dreams is distraction from a lonely reality, why would the sleeping Victor overlook the “best of women” (32), the one who provided him with Elizabeth and then sacrificed herself to nurse her back to health? Surely, a man with such a sheltered childhood would consider his mother a predominant figure, yet at the critical moment when Victor seeks solace in slumber, Caroline Beaufort makes no appearance. Indeed, this phenomenon extends beyond Victor’s dreams; following the description of her corpse in Chapter 5, Victor the narrator mentions her only a handful of times. The critical dream sequence, then, combined with the pseudo-birth of the creature, marks a point of departure in Frankenstein’s memory of his mother, one that we perceive in the grotesque image he now associates with that beloved woman.

Quite simply, Victor’s mother has become equivalent to his creature, in that both remind him of the woeful human condition. Most often, this phrase refers to the brevity of our lives, the quickness with which death comes upon us; for Victor, man’s vulnerability is compounded by the opposite, by the one distorted earthly afterlife he has witnessed. Having built this connection in his nightmare, he cannot think of his mother in any other way; to use a common colloquial expression, she is now ‘dead to him,’ a source of anguish rather than comfort, an image of his unavoidable future rather than his idyllic past.

As a character, Victor is defined by that one night he spends pacing in the courtyard, on the boundary between internal and external space. Seeking refuge in his mind but unable to escape the world, he suffers from a unique awareness of mankind’s similarly trapped position between odious reincarnation and abrupt demise. Thus while his nightmare does serve to foreshadow the eventual result of his experiment, Dr. Glance’s explanation neglects more subtle shades of meaning. After all, if Shelley were using the scene purely as a premonition, why would she include Victor’s mother, rather than simply allowing Elizabeth to morph into her own corpse? As I have shown, an analysis of both dreams leads us to a more thorough understanding of Victor’s psychological state, as well as an appreciation for the way in which Shelley illustrates it. Whether Freud would interpret the symbolic dream language in the same manner is irrelevant; these dreams are written, not imagined, based not simply in Shelley’s subconscious but also in her purposeful literary calculations.

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